Churches Support for the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement

Apr 25, 2019


Bernie Sanders, US Democrat candidate for the Presidency has caused controversy by criticising what he calls the cruel, racist policies of the government of Israel towards Palestinians. But it’s time that such comments were seen as not unusual, even taken for granted.

On April 30 in St. James Church Sydney, Christians seeking lasting peace for the people of Palestine and Israel, known as the Palestine/Israel Ecumenical Network (PIEN) will express views similar to Bernie Sanders’. They will announce their support for the BDS campaign for Palestinians’ rights to self determination.

That policy is courageous but could be regarded as unexceptional. BDS is a world-wide, non-violent, international law based movement. It seeks to end Israeli control of Palestinians lands, secure equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel and foster the right of return for peoples expelled from their homes in 1948.

The PIEN policy focuses on the activities of the former Hewlett Packard corporation (HP). Known as a manufacturer of desk top computers and printers, the company’s successors facilitate systems which sustain Israel’s illegal occupation. They provide equipment for the Israeli population registry and ID systems. All Israelis and Palestinians are required to carry an ID card which indicates their ethnicity and religion, a means of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews.

In 2007 the Israeli Prison Service contracted HP to develop and maintain an information system to include all prisoner records, details of prison management, human resources and intelligence. By February 2019, over 5000 Palestinians were held in Israel jails including at least 220 children.

Hewlett Packard has also provided technology for the Israeli navy in charge of enforcing the illegal blockade of Gaza since 2007; and it gives IT services to the Israeli Border Police.

The call to Australian churches to support this boycott has important precedents. In December 2009 , the Kairos statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem asked what theology could be found which justifies crimes perpetrated against a whole people and the dispossession of their lands.

That statement,’a moment of truth’, was a reminder that in Gaza, on the West Bank and in numerous refugee camps, Palestinians were dying, not just living in a state of hostility and conflict. The statement referred to life becoming unbearable. ‘We are dying every day, oppressed every day, thrown into prisons every day and we are expelled from Jerusalem with our children every day.’

In alliance with the Kairos statement, PIEN encourages Christians to pressure the Israeli government to end its occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza and its disregard of international law. Against this principled stand there is likely to be a backlash. Robot-like, intellectually lazy charges of ant-Semitism are usually circulated in reaction to any criticism of Israel.

In response to any backlash, Australian Churches should stress the moral and legal base of the BDS movement. Chapter One, Article One of the UN Charter says, ‘All people have the right to self determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’

This right to self determination confronts Israel governments’ ethnic cleansing as the condition for establishing a Jewish majority state, even though international law teaches that no benefits can be derived from illegal acts, that no right or law can be derived from injustice or from the commission of a wrong.

In that regard Martin Luther King taught that a boycott meant withdrawing from an evil system. Such an act, he said, was not heroic but a moral obligation.

The French human rights campaigner Stephan Hessel stressed that not to take action against injustice was to lose touch with one’s own humanity.

International jurist Richard Falk sees the BDS movement as ‘a hopeful way of writing the future history of Palestine in the legal and moral language of rights, not in the bloody deeds of warfare.’

Boycotts against people and governments are legitimate even in Israel’s eyes. The government of Israel called the world to boycott Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Hamas government in Gaza. Yet a boycott of companies which profit from the oppression of Palestinians is somehow called illegitimate. In a world where might is considered right, it has become a crime to boycott the criminal, a crime to fight violation of international law.

In their policy stand, PIEN is in good company. US churches, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church and several Quaker bodies have divested from Israel and international companies. In the UK, the Quakers will not invest in any company profiting from Israel’s military occupation. In South Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and other leading members of the Episcopal Church say that investment in companies supporting Israel’s military occupation makes the Church complicit in the injustices suffered by Palestinians.

Support for the BDS movement depends in part on distinguishing between the inalienable rights of an Indigenous population and the acquired rights of a colonial settler population. It depends also on emphasising the religious, ethical, legal and political grounds for the boycott of corporations.

In pursuit of a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, PIEN’s policy is a significant initiative, a way of opposing inhumanities and promoting humanity.

Stuart Rees, OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize

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